I come not to bury Freewill, but to praise it . . .
so . . .
I’ll get my complaints about this year’s Julius Caesar out of the way right off the bat:
The play is cut. Parts of speeches are missing. Whole scenes are missing. At least two characters are conflated. And the conspiracy is short one conspirator. These are purist quibbles. I understand and accept that a single small company doing two plays on alternate nights have an extraordinary burden on them and I understand that it was necessary to get us out of the park before the gates closed at eleven. . . .
Which leads me to the feeling that some of the company were in a race at times to deliver their lines — “festina lente!” Octavius Caesar used to admonish. The haste agravated the one really important complaint I have . . . .
In some parts of the amphitheatre the vocal sound system really sucked! I have to ask, what ever happened to the unamplified production? How did actors do it in the old days? Actually, I remember how they did it in the old days: They Projected!
Okay, now that that’s out of the way:
The music/sound design by Dave Clarke is tremendous: regal at the right time, ominous at the right time. The very first thing I wrote in my notebook after “Curtain” was “like the music.”
The next thing I noted immediately was the costume/makeup design, which is, quite simply, striking. Modern dress military, Fascist Italy meets Godfather Sicily with skeletal faces all around. I truly loved the costumes and makeup, from the tattered ‘Nam veteran’s uniform of the Soothsayer (John Write), through the grey 1984 plebians even to the red track suit Marc Antony (Nathan Cuckow) wore at the beginning, but I couldn’t help but wonder a bit about Caesar (Kevin Sutley) in his white pajamas, long blond hair and beard. Was that supposed to be Sir Richard Branson up there? I did notice that Portia (Belinda Cornish), who’s suicide death is also in some sense due to Brutus (Chris Bullough), is dressed in similar white pajamas. The costuming was for the most part wonderfully evocative of a period on the edge of civil war.
And the set by Cory Sincennes. A quite traditional layout done up with the very appropriate feel of ruined wartime concrete. The jagged metal bits in the second half were used very aptly in the scenes at Philipi. All in all a very versatile set. It will be interesting to see how it is explored in The Tempest.
Now, to the meat of the thing: the performances.
Chris Bullough as Brutus does an impressive, understated job. In the first meeting of the conspirators in Act II, scene 1 he brings out Brutus’ doubts and vacillation — his goodness, in fact — beautifully: “Why an oath?!” The scene itself is impressively gothic and reeks the whole time of Fascism. Earlier, when Brutus and Cassius (Kevin Corey) meet in Act I, Scene 2, I felt that a homoerotic subtext was being worked. As they prepared to part, I couldn’t help think that they were a couple as much as Brutus and Portia or Caesar and Calphurnia (Cayley Thomas-Haug).
Making the conspirator Decius a women (Nadien Chu), while a pragmatic choice in a small company (like Amber Borotsik’s Lucius), becomes at one moment a most effective choice. That she will “o’ersway” Caesar carries a different weight and connotation than it would from he lips of a male Decius. Unless one were to play with the homoerotic subtext.
What I thought was the stand out performance of the evening was actually quite a small role: Cayley Thomas-Haug’s riveting possession — what other term for such a living performance? — by Calphurnia. She is charmingly overwrought as she begs Caesar to stay home from the Senate. Her performance shows shattering vulnerability in the domestic time between she and Caesar and wonderfully real nobility in the public moments. But the nobility crumbles as she flees off stage when the conspirators enter, the weeping being obviously only just held in check even as the exit door closes. I found it remarkable that Thomas-Haug remained so completely in character through her exit, very much in the background as other things were the focus. Cayley Thomas-Haug is a young actor to watch carefully. I’m fascinated to imagine what she does with Miranda — or Miranda does with her — in The Tempest.
One of the missing scenes is Act II, scene 3, in which Artemidorus explains the content of the warning letter he intends to give to Caesar. The excision of this scene leads me to mention what I found a very effective use of the amphitheatre space by the company. As the scene with Caesar, Calphurnia and the conspirators was playing out, my companion whispered to me “who’s that man?” pointing to a grey clad actor walking outside the tent to our left. Throughout the play I had noticed that the actors moved about, singly or in pairs and sometimes more, around the periphery of the venue. They moved from exit to their position for next entrance in great circles around the audience, always in character. In pairs they seemed to be seriously conversing at times. The man who made this walk this time was Adam Klassen, who would enter as Artemidorus in the next scene. In fact, his walk at the periphery of the audience’s attention came in relation to the following scene at just about the point where the missing scene would have fallen. The scene was not completely excised: rather, it was made silent and moved outside the tent and played parallel to the preceding scene. Genius? Good fortune? What say you, Director John Kirkpatrick?
Act III begins with more wonderful music and a beautifully mechanical march of the characters into position, what I describe in my notes as a ballet of the conspirators. And Caesar enters in scarlet. Even the shoes. Very effective.
After Artemidorus’ aborted warning, the Dance continues in the Assassination, Casca (Troy O’Donnell, who bears a disturbing resemblance to Mussolini in this makeup) strikes first and the rest follow in slow motion, with Brutus for the close. The sound design for the bathing of conspirators’ hands in Caesar’s blood was most effective. A sort of bestial grunting. Or was it throat singing? Or both?
The massing of the mob of Plebians for the funeral oration was viscerally disturbing. Although there were only about seven grey clad actors banging pots and pans (a nice, topical touch) it felt like I was trapped in the middle of a raging mob of thousands. I was so relieved when Antony finally managed to silence his “Friends. Romans. Countrymen”. Very effective theatre.
And then, the intermission comes.
The stylized fighting of the battle of Philipi was quite effective, as was the battlefield set, a tableau of impaled soldiers. Havoc has clearly been cried and the dogs of war have definitely been let slip. But, really, the second “half” seemed quite fast-paced and short, a break-neck winding down of the inevitable to the death of Brutus and entrance of Octavius (Nadien Chu again). A stroke of ingenious symmetry was the casting of Belinda Cornish, who was Portia earlier in the play, as Strato, the soldier who assists Brutus’ suicide, karmically avenging Portia’s suicide over Brutus . Nicely done.
I admit I’m a sucker for Shakespeare outside, ever since seeing Northern Light Theatre’s Shakespeare in a Tent productions back around 1980. Freewill’s 2012 production of Julius Caesar is, on the whole, a very interesting and worthwhile piece of theatre with some very fine performances — extremely fine in the case of Cayley Thomas-Haug — and a number of very intriguing and fresh production and directorial decisions. In spite of my quibbles, a very powerful experience for both the audience and for the young cast, I’m sure.
And, it’s outside!
The Freewill Shakespeare Festival runs until July 22, 2012 in the Heritage Amphitheatre in the Park that should still be called Mayfair.
Soon I’ll get to The Tempest.
My references to Act and Scene are to the Arden Second Series Edition of Julius Caesar, T. S. Dorsch, editor.
Oh. And festina lente means “make haste slowly”. What do they teach kids in school these days?